People flock to see percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie the way they used to mob concerts by Liszt or Paganini. Those who went to hear her play with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, got their money’s worth.

Dame Evelyn is certainly a showman (person?) on every percussion instrument, but most remarkable was her virtuosity on the simple snare drum, displayed in Askell Masson’s 1982 Konzertstuck for Snare Drum and Orchestra. 

I don’t think many people in the audience realized, or cared, that they were hearing a 12-tone composition that would have met with Schonberg’s approval. They were too hypnotized by the drumming. The speed, volume and polyrhythmic nature of her playing all verged on the incredible, but most astonishing were the controlled pitch changes and overtones.

In a very long decrescendo at the end of the concert-piece, one could have sworn that the single drum began to sing, while the overtones sounded like chimes. I don’t know if the effect could be captured on a recording, but it was a great advertisement for live music.

Her second work,  Joe Duddell’s “Snowblind” (2002), while equally a display piece, did not provide the same frisson. It is scored for string orchestra, marimba, vibraphone, crotales and temple blocks and the percussion section emulates the piano (also a percussion instrument) in a melodic Neo-Romantic style.

Dame Evelyn appeared after intermission, and did not upstage an equally fine percussion-based performance, the Maine premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s “Chasing Light,” a four-movement piece that attempts to capture the effects of sunrise on New Hampshire hills.

The work is beautifully written, with ethereal color effects over a striking bass ostinato that drives the development.  I had not heard it before, but the orchestra, under guest conductor Alfred Savia, gave it a performance that must have pleased the composer, who was sitting in the balcony.

Savia was equally at home in the classics, with a glorious up-tempo reading of the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major (Op. 93) that almost made one agree with the composer, that it was better than the more popular No. 7.

The final work on the program, Ravel’s Bolero, demonstrated that soloists have no monopoly on exciting virtuoso performances. Beginning with an almost inaudible drumbeat and pizzicatto, it built up seamlessly to an almost unbearable intensity, section by section. It deserved a rare standing ovation for the orchestra alone.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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